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Mad Men Recap: New Year, Same You

Last week, everyone faked the fun at the Christmas party, in an episode in which everyone was playing parts to get what they wanted, whether it was Peggy pretending to be a virgin, or Roger pretending to be a good sport. This week tees up three characters — Don, Lane, and Joan — who very much want fresh starts in the New Year of 1965. Only, “nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves,” says the blonde Berkeley student, even if “everyone else can see it right away.” Sounds dark, but this episode’s actually not: Does Lane Pryce slap a steak on his crotch and scream Yee-haw? Does Don do manual labor in his boxers? As Don says, “Does Howdy Doody have a wooden dick?”

The episode begins with Joan, unhitching herself from metal stirrups. So far in season four, we’ve only seen her as the supremely capable, unruffled ruler of office etiquette. Now we find she’s attempting to have a child with her husband before he gets shipped off to Vietnam. But that’s only half the reveal: On a casual, first-name basis with a flirty gynecologist who never would have volunteered to leave his girl, Joan admits that she’s had two procedures: the abortion he administered and another, by someone who called herself a midwife. The doctor tells her she should be able to carry a child, then consoles her: “As the song says, whatever will be, will be.”

It’s a portentous line — partly because everyone seems to be craving change and hoping that what will be just might not be. But it’s practically twisted to use it here, because the song was made famous by Doris Day, another confident lady so shapely that Bob Hope nicknamed her J.B., or “Jut Butt.” That’s the kind of nickname you could imagine Roger bestowing on Joan, but the line about Day that’s more apt here (and one that Peggy could appreciate) is this notorious one by Oscar Levant: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
In the early forties, before Doris Day was famous or even 18 years old, she married the performer Al Jorden and became pregnant with his baby. According to the biography Considering Doris Day, he “not only told Day that she should have an abortion but also tried to induce the abortion himself.” At one point, Jorden even held a gun to her pregnant belly. Whether Joan’s pregnancies were by Roger or someone else entirely, this at least underscores that Joan has been through some serious pain.

Few of Doris Day’s fans would have ever guessed that she had such a wretched backstory, just as the boys in the office would never guess that anything terrible has ever befallen Joan. But sometimes put-together personae (like Don’s, or Joan’s) are coping mechanisms born out of terrible necessity. At 17, Day was a single mother supporting herself and a kid, so she created her carefree image to make a buck. In a similar way, Joan — who never seems to have a family or any support but herself — has done whatever it takes to protect herself, and now she’s being forced to open herself up again, to rely on someone else, no matter her reservations.

In this episode, we finally see Joan’s façade crack for the first time since she cracked a vase over Greg’s head: She shockingly breaches her office cool and tells Lane that he has made her feel like “a helpless stupid little girl.” Then, she bawls while Greg — in a rare moment of competence and sensitivity — treats her finger. (Now that Greg is somewhat sympathetic, is a death in Vietnam even more inevitably tragic?) Both of Joan’s uncharacteristic eruptions hint at how anxious she has become and how difficult it is for her to give up her independence after protecting herself for so long. The danger is obvious: What if Joan does all this work to open up to Greg and then he gets shot in Vietnam? If Joan can’t see what’s wrong with herself and everyone else can, is it that she’s picked the wrong man? That her tough-cookie façade is a charade? Or something else?

Meanwhile, Don is dealing with his own history. It took Joan’s gynecologist to remind us of her past — Don needs the closest thing he’s got to a therapist, or family: Anna Draper. While visiting Anna’s home (her broken leg an echo of the missing leg in the first episode, which Weiner has said represented Don’s phantom-limb memory of the past), Don looks clean and crisp in his white shirts and boxers, relaxed and happy — a full 180 from the depths of last episode. Playing the role of Dick Whitman again, Don is charming, sweet, and caring, even almost pitiable as he talks about how Betty broke his heart (a radical oversimplification, to put it kindly, but that doesn’t change the fact that Don is deeply sad). Anna (we might as well call her Polyanna--she even shares the same haircut as Hayley Mills in the 1960 film) reflects back at Don all that is best about him, or could be: Dick always does the right thing, he’s so successful, she’s so proud. You want to believe that Dick is the real guy and that cad Don is just an act. Then he leans in to mack on the amazing Berkeley girl who's quicker than all the adults around her, and he delivers the creepy line — “so young.” Sigh. Remember, it's telling that the one person in the whole world who believes that Don is a genuinely good man is a Tarot-card addict who had her life paid for by him and also swears that she's seen a real-life UFO. Which is more likely: That there are green men in spaceships, or that Don can change?

Don is wrecked by the news of Anna’s bone cancer — she’s his last remaining family member, even if she wasn’t really part of his family. (Really, has Hamm ever been better, or showed more range than he flexes in this episode?) Everyone knows what's wrong with Anna except, maybe, her (though that's doubtful). What's wrong with Don has been obvious for so long: Ashamed, he is always running away from something he can’t look at for too long. Rather than face his shame, he’s always hiding behind booze and girls and fantasies of some mythical beach in some old song. And of course he lies to Anna. Was there ever a man who better knew the value of bullshit?

And then he’s on the plane back to the office, where the party always gets started. And Lane, poor Lane: Everyone but him can see his problem — that he loves New York and hates his wife. He sends her flowers and apologies, but Don is the doctor who gets Lane to open up — thanks to a bottle of fine scotch with no bite. The mad, mad, mad montage of the two rich middle-aged dudes, running wild in the city — "They're not queers, they're rich" — is as hysterical as it is pathetic: doing fake Japanese voices at Gamera, guffawing at latter-day Lenny Bruce standup, picking up prostitutes. This isn't the forced joviality of the Christmas party: These two guys aren't acting as they're expected to act; they're doing exactly what they want to do. They're throwing around money, buying pleasure, exulting in the way money gives them the freedom to act like jackasses, and generally behaving like stupid teenagers. ("Hand jobs!" sniggers Beavis. "Yee-Haw!" screams Butt-Head.) Don's the leader of the pack, as Lane notes. They get away with it all because they're loaded.

So, where do we go from here? Can Don change? As Anna says, you can paint over the stains on the wall, but even if you do that, it won’t match the rest of the house, anyway: Does Don care enough to do the job right? Especially when his wealth makes being a mess so much fun? More likely than not, what Don will be, he will be.

Photo: AMC